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The PhD Begins Today: Thoughts and Feelings

Today I stand at the beginning of a new adventure and a new chapter in my life. At noon I will gather with other PhD students at Luther Seminary for our orientation luncheon. Then, for the next nine days, I will be writing entrance exams. Tomorrow it all begins with a German proficiency exam. I’ll have two hours to translate a 750 word essay and answer questions about it. On Thursday the exam is on the New Testament. And then next Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday it is Congregational Leadership, Systematic Theology, and Church History.

Two common questions float around me. First, am I ready? Ready. That is an interesting concept. How do you study for exams like this? Even though the school provided the questions for us at the beginning of the summer, and even though they provided a bibliography of 28 books, the scope of the knowledge base about which I will be tested is so vast that I feel that I have been swimming in the open sea, up to my nostrils in content, all summer. Studying for exams like these is like digging holes on the beach as the tide comes in. You dig and dig and then a wave washes over the hole and it disappears.

There have been moments along the way this summer where I have actually felt like I know nothing at all. I hit a point last week where I said, “I can’t do any more. I know what I know and we’ll just have to go with that.” The stress level has definitely come down since that point. Am I ready? I have no idea. I guess I’ll know at noon next Wednesday when it’s over.

The second question is often accompanied by a raised eyebrow or a slight tilt of the head. “Why are you doing this again?” Good question. Why am I getting a PhD in Congregational Mission and Leadership? Do I need it to get a job? No. I have a great job. I love my job. I sense that some people ask the question in fear that I am planning to leave Grace, as if Grace was a stepping stone in my career path. That is not true. Grace is definitely not a stepping stone. For it to be a stepping stone would imply that I actually have a career path on which I am stepping. For the first time in my life I don’t have a career path. I have no idea where my life is heading and what the next steps are for me. Grace has been a salvation for me on many levels. I know that God led me here and brought me to Grace. It has been a liberation and a restoration for my soul. I don’t see myself going anywhere else.

So, why the PhD? I definitely don’t need it to work at Grace. The answer is twofold. The first part is mystical and the second is me-stical.

The mystical: God told me to. At 3:00am on a February morning in Las Vegas God woke me up and said, “move to Minnesota and get your PhD.” It sounds weird, I know. For the first two and a half years of living here I had no plan to do it and absolutely no idea how it would ever happen. And then, after I surrendered to God and to Pastor Mark, the door magically appeared and opened right in front of me. There stood the perfect PhD program for my personality, interests, and skill set, just 20 minutes down the road, and totally free to me. How do you deny that? Last fall I sat down with the dean of the Graduate programs, Dr. Lokken, to explain my situation and he encouraged me to use the application process as part of my discernment. I did the GRE, filled out the application, and the school said they wanted to invest in me as a leader. And then a private donor volunteered to fund my expenses in order to free me from the necessity of producing freelance art to supplement the deficiency in my church salary. Miracle after miracle keeps peeling back the path to this end. So I follow.

The me-stical part is simply about me. I love learning and teaching. Back in 1994, when I first sat down with Dr. Clark at Bethel Seminary to discuss entering into the M.Div. program, he asked me why I wanted to do it. I told him that one of my life dreams was to teach at a college or university. He said that if I ever wanted to do that I would most certainly have to earn a PhD. Using stark reality tactics, he warned me that there are many unemployed PhDs in the market today and that earning the degree was no guarantee of employment. Of course he was correct, but, ironically, due to the extreme deficiency of theologically trained teachers in Las Vegas, I was able to teach at Bethany University Las Vegas Campus as an adjunct instructor for five years. That taste of teaching reinforced my love of it. Simply put, I would still love to teach at the highest level possible, and the PhD would make that possible. Another “me” aspect is that I have always had this inner voice that needs the affirmation of those I respect before I can feel sanctioned or worthy to contribute to a conversation or feel that anything I say has any merit. I know that is silly thinking and many would baulk at it, but it is a reality of my psyche. I suppose those three silly letters after my name would somehow let me feel like I have at least given my best effort to attempt to understand, to the highest recognized level, the subject about which I seek to discuss. I know that I will still struggle with my “I’m-the-little-brother-what-can-I-bring-to-the-table” syndrome, but someday I might get over it.

Why am I doing this? The title of my blog ultimately answers the question. I’m following the cloud. Everything seems to indicate that God has brought me to this point. The door continues to open. I have this sense that the next 10 days are going to be a huge and critical point in the journey. Either I will breeze through them and think, “yes, I know this is right, let’s go.” Or, I will come out the other end and both the school and I will say, “hmmm, maybe we should rethink this whole deal. Perhaps you should just stick to what you’re doing and we’ll call it good.” Either way I’m fine with it. If God wants me to do this PhD, then it will happen. If not, it’s all good and I’m ready to dive into all the things I’ve got going at Grace without distraction.

I’ll let you know in a couple weeks. Let the exam writing begin…